Book Review: Fergus Bordewich's 'On Hallowed Ground'

By Fergus M. Bordewich
Sunday, November 8, 2009


The Story of Arlington National Cemetery

By Robert M. Poole

Walker & Company. 368 pp. $28

In the folds of its hills on the Virginia shore of the Potomac, where its vast array of white tombstones evokes the mesmerizing image of an assembled army in its last resting place, Arlington National Cemetery splendidly honors the generations of self-sacrifice embodied in the nation's military dead. It also encapsulates the flawed story of a country still struggling to come to terms with the human cost of its wars.

The central character in "On Hallowed Ground," Robert M. Poole's gracefully written, often deeply affecting history, cannot speak. However, Poole succeeds grandly in giving voice to the more than 600 acres of what virtually all Americans consider sacred soil. As Veterans Day approaches, the almost daily arrival of flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base reminds us that the dead of today's wars will continue to come to rest beneath Arlington's gentle hills.

Arlington was the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee, and before that of George Washington Parke Custis, the stepson of George Washington. After Lee threw in his lot with the Confederacy, the property was confiscated by the federal government, which in 1864 began burying Union soldiers on the estate's slopes.

During the Civil War, the slain were typically dumped into shallow graves on the battlefields where they died, with little ceremony and no identification, and forgotten as the armies marched on. Poole writes that bodies were stuffed in temporary burial grounds all around Washington, and "contractors handled their dead soldiers with less care than they would accord a load of turnips bound for market."

Poole's story travels from the burial of the cemetery's first occupant, William Christman of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, to the interment of victims of the attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Along the way, we learn about the extraordinary work of the field and laboratory teams that identify the remains of service members lost on half-forgotten battlefields, often from mere scraps of bone. The United States has been committed to this difficult task for more than a century, and the teams have been astonishingly successful at it.

In spite of the solemn memorializing of the unknown soldiers entombed at Arlington, they are by far the exception rather than the rule. Of the Civil War's more than 600,000 dead, 250,000 were never identified. But during the Spanish-American War, specialized teams were dispatched to Cuba and the Philippines, where they identified almost 90 percent of the dead. Researchers identified all but 2 percent of the soldiers killed in World War I and all but 3 percent of those lost in World War II.

So refined had this process become by the late 20th century that the Vietnam War claimed virtually no unknown service members: The Vietnam-era remains interred in the Tomb of the Unknowns later had to be removed when they were proved to be those of a downed airman, Lt. Michael Blassie.

Poole reminds readers that the planners of the Pentagon intended to plant the enormous building at the end of Memorial Bridge, smack in front of the cemetery, which would have ruptured the majestic view from Arlington House across the Potomac to the Lincoln Memorial. Fortunately, Franklin D. Roosevelt personally ordered the Pentagon to be built in its present location.

Poole also recounts the inside story of John F. Kennedy's hastily improvised but nonetheless magnificent funeral, culminating in the panicked efforts of Arlington personnel to craft the first "eternal flame" from a Hawaiian luau torch, a length of copper tubing and a tank of gas.

Given the thoroughness of Poole's reporting, it is surprising that he almost totally ignores the long history of racial segregation at Arlington, flitting over the subject with a couple of brief references. (He is notably more attentive to the longtime segregation of deceased enlisted men from officers.) Until 1947, the black and white dead, with a tiny number of exceptions, were strictly separated: whites at the top of the hill, blacks at the bottom, in a cruelly symbolic demonstration of the races' status in Jim Crow America. Black leaders were justifiably infuriated when the cemetery erected a monument to Confederate dead interred there when no such honor was given to the African Americans who had fought and died in the nation's wars.

Poole fares better in his saddening account of the fate of the thousand or more freed slaves who during the Civil War were settled at Arlington in a deliberate thumb in the eye to the Lees (who later spent years trying unsuccessfully to recover their estate). "The new settlement at Arlington was applauded by those who believed that slavery was a sin and Lee was a traitor," Poole writes. However, he adds, "Just as the federal effort at Reconstruction ran out of steam in the 1870s, compassion for Arlington's freedmen seemed to waver." Beginning in the 1880s, the freedmen and their descendants were unceremoniously expelled as the nation forgot its commitment to the rights of African Americans in the name of reconciliation with the South.

Like the nation itself, Arlington bears the scars of its history, as Poole eloquently shows. Today, black and white, officer and enlisted, male and female, recent arrivals from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Pvt. Christman's Civil War comrades, lie intermingled on those grassy slopes overlooking the Potomac, in their melancholy democracy of the dead.

Fergus M. Bordewich's most recent book is "Washington: The Making of the American Capital."

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